Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Jim and kids at Hotel Victoria. With bikes.

                                                            A study in contrasts.
Shortly after end-of-the year school exams were completed, I got a call from Michael Horton, at ConCERT (an organization SSF partners with in Siem Reap).

He said that there are several schools in the ConCERT network, and that this year Spitler School was selected to receive a donation of 11 bicycles from the Hotel Victoria.  ConCERT collaborates with the Hotel Victoria to collect donations from guests to buy bicycles for students throughout the Siem Reap Province.  This was our year to be a recipient!

Okay then.  So now we have 11 bikes to ‘give away’…but in light of appropriate practices we are trying to develop, we can’t just randomly select kids to receive a gift.  There needs to be a valid reason for the award.  I knew all the grade 6 students (at both schools) would be receiving bicycles as they venture into Middle School in town.  Spitler Foundation has over the past few years received generous donations from the Hess Familiy and recently from the Kenny King Foundation to fund the bicycle program for promoted grade 6 students.

So, back to the problem at hand…  I also knew that in some years, when funds were available, the top students in grades 3-6 would receive a bicycle.  But, this year, we were a bit short on this project budget.  Being the top academic student and receiving an award seemed to be a logical match and now we had a trove of 11 bicycles to re-institute this project!  Great timing, indeed.

So, doing some math (the kind from the 50’s, not that new fangled stuff), we looked at how many top students in grades 3,4, and 5 from both Kurata and Spitler Schools would we need to make 11?  After hours of white-boarding this difficult calculation, we came up with the TOP TWO students in each class!

Let’s see, that’s three classes at Spitler School times 2, making 6 recipients, and three more classes at Kurata School times 2, making 6 more recipients.  There, done.  Oh.  That’s 12, not eleven.  What to do?  Solution: Sarin buys one bike.  We’ve got a dozen deserving recipients and an equivalent (that’s a new math term, sorry) number of bicycles  (that’s 1 + 11 = 12).  Tah dah!

The teachers name the students and in a few days we’ve invited them and their parents to the 5-star Hotel Victoria for a mid-morning reception and ceremony.  It was a lovely event in an outdoor garden.  Many uniformed staff were there to serve our children like little royalty.  There were fruit drinks, tea sandwiches, artfully prepared fruits and sweets galore.  The parents were shy and reluctant to participate, and hunkered down on the lawn away from the activities.  But, the Victoria staff (mostly Khmer) respectfully invited them to be a part of the event, encouraging them to partake in the feast, and they did.  For most of these children and their families, they had never experienced such generosity of this proportion.  The bicycle presentations were quickly dispatched (it was super hot that day!)…and the event came to a happy close.

I am certain the families still recount the event to friends and relatives even today.  One funny, sort of, part of the experience came when the families were invited to take a little tour of the spectacular lobby area of the hotel.  In it is a series of koy pools, with bridges, and even a couple of small crocodiles to be seen.  As we were passing the open passage leading to the magnificent pool area our students, and their parents, were treated to the sight of a nice middle-aged woman walking to the cafĂ©, in her ever-so-stylish bikini!   Oh my.  This was not exactly what these parents and kids bargained for, but welcome to the Western world, a la Hotel Victoria!  [FYI—The cultural norms of non-urban Cambodians dictate a significant level of modesty at all time. . . A woman displaying too much, eh, skin, is a ‘no no’ and quite shocking.]  We quickly shuttled everyone out of the lobby and hoped this particular story did not become the headliner at dinner that night!  Oh well, life in the big city!

It was a gratifying sight to see our 12 deserving recipients riding away from the Hotel Victoria, along with their parents (many on bikes too) heading back to their homes in Ang Chagn. These kids represent the best possible future for these families to escape their poverty and find a better life.  They earned those bikes, and the access those bikes provide to improve their condition.